Attending to Learning Styles in Mathematics and
Science Classrooms. ERIC Digest.
by Thomson, Barbara S. - Mascazine, John R.
We all have our own ways of doing things, from washing dishes to planning
a trip. The preferences, tendencies, and strategies that individuals exhibit
while learning constitute what have come to be called "learning styles."
Formal study of learning styles has developed over the past 30 years from
a variety of conceptual orientations. Among the theories of learning styles,
that of Dunn and Dunn (1978) is among the most comprehensive in scope and
practice for teachers. (DeBello, 1990)
THE DUNN MODEL
The model of learning styles created by Dunn, Dunn & Price (1979,
1980, 1990) comprises five major categories called "stimuli." Within these
five major categories are 21 different elements that influence our learning.
Following are the five types of stimuli and the elements they comprise:
*"Environmental" includes: light, sound, temperature, and room design.
*"Emotional" includes: structured planning, persistence, motivation,
*"Sociological" includes: pairs, peers, adults, self, group, and varied.
*"Physical" includes: perceptual strengths, mobility, intake, and time
*"Psychological" includes: global/analytic, impulsive/reflective, and
right- or left-brain dominance.
As each of us develops and accumulates experiences, we each come to
rely on some of the elements more than others. For most individuals, four
or five of the elements become extremely important when attempting to learn
new or difficult information. Giving attention to the elements that most
influence a person's learning is what constitutes attending to one's individual
APPLICATIONS OF THE DUNN MODEL TO MATHEMATICS AND
Apart from administering individual Learning Style Instruments for each
student and analyzing the results to find strengths and preferences, teachers
can attend to individual differences by being attentive to individual stimuli
and elements that influence learning. One way to do this is to focus on
a particular stimuli or element of the model.
Consider the environmental stimuli. Attention to the classroom learning
environment may include changing the physical layout of the room, allowing
for seating changes with regard to light from natural or bright light (near
windows), or to softly lit areas. Temperature differences may also be addressed
with careful seat arrangements or placement of fans. Some classrooms lend
themselves to greater flexibility than others, allowing space for some
assignments to be completed at large tables or on the floor. Temperature
preferences can be noted when some students are often seen wearing their
coats or layered sweaters indoors on warm days, while others have a preference
for cooler temperatures. Attention to some of these environmental details
can be carried over to home study environments as well. Individual student-teacher
discussions may reveal environmental preferences, such as those for studying
while reclining or while music is softly playing, that may be more easily
accommodated at home.
Sociological elements can be addressed in how teachers structure learning
activities. Do certain students always prefer to work by themselves, in
pairs, in small groups, or only with an adult or authority figure? Math
and science instructors may vary the way they require students to work
together, noting the number of opportunities in a given week or month that
students are able to work in the various social arrangements. Teachers
may also encourage students to study or prepare assignments outside of
class using particular social arrangements and discussing the results following
assignments or assessments.
Some science or mathematics instructional strategies can easily be adapted
to include elements of the Dunn Model. For example, having students move
around the room at teacher-directed time intervals in order to complete
practical questions for laboratory exercises or make observations can be
great for students requiring much mobility or kinesthetic activity. Allowing
students to use blackboards, bulletin boards, and large floor space to
demonstrate mathematical concepts or team teaching tasks can be enriching.
Varying assessment strategies and employing peer review, portfolios, and
interviewing, or similar techniques can tap learning strengths. Assignments
and activities can be structured to include some flexibility so students
can utilize perceptual strengths (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile).
Science and mathematics labs can emphasize the use of tactual manipulation
of materials, the use of demonstrations that capitalize on more than one
perceptual element, and varied social groupings.
Psychological elements can be addressed by considering the manner in
which lessons are initiated. Sequential and analytic teachers often prefer
to get to the details of a lesson while global students may need a hook
or meaningful overview before focusing on the details. The planned use
of stories, cartoons, anecdotes, and diagrams can help global students
see how details fit into a larger schema. Biographical anecdotes of historical
mathematicians or scientists can put a personal face on otherwise impersonal
content. Varying assignments to accommodate student preferences, sometimes
with increasing structure and guidance, sometimes with increasing freedom
and open ended outcomes may attend to psychological preferences. Students
need to spend time working with the finer details and the larger interdisciplinary
scope of concepts. (Caine & Caine, 1991)
LEARNING STYLES AND EDUCATIONAL REFORM
Many elements in the Dunn Model complement the reform efforts in mathematics
and science education that emphasize increased attention to student centered
learning. Attention to learning styles is attention to individual differences
and individual strengths. Recognizing such differences should lead educators
to consider how they teach to meet such differences or allow students some
flexibility in completing assignments or projects. We often recognize such
differences in adults, but we sometimes ignore the presence of such differences
in children. Individual time-of-day preferences and organizational differences
are two good examples. Not everyone is equally productive at the same time
of the day, and some individuals require more frequent breaks, especially
during long blocks of time. Others may need more structure or detailed
instructions. These are but a few of the differences we may notice in our
Constructivist approaches to learning also focus on the personal strategies
used when making sense of new information. Attending to learning style
differences among students expands the opportunities for students to build
upon previous knowledge through a variety of learning modalities. By expanding
the range of instructional approaches, teachers increase the likelihood
that individuals will construct meaning from active learning experiences
that correspond to one's learning style.
Mathematical problem solving patterns and preferences can also be discussed
in light of learning style preferences. Projects such as the Cognitively
Guided Instruction (CGI) project at the University of Wisconsin emphasize
that teachers create mathematical learning environments that resonant with
teacher styles, as well as, with student needs and differences. Engaging
activities linking mathematics with other disciplines using manipulative
and creative problem-solving experiences are often welcomed by students
with global or non-traditional learning styles. Problem solving also may
be done in various social group arrangements and may allow students more
responsibility for their own learning. The standards advocated by both
mathematics and science educators promote active learning experiences that
resonate with students' strengths and cognitive abilities.
But perhaps the greatest benefit from attending to learning styles in
mathematics or science education is that of placing more responsibility
for learning on the students themselves. Students who discover and understand
their personal learning styles can and often do apply such information
with great success and enthusiasm. (Griggs, 1991) Thus, attending to learning
styles can be an ongoing consideration and aid in attacking new or difficult
learning situations and the processing of information.
As we learn more about the physiological and neurological functioning
of the human brain, attending to learning styles becomes more credible
and accepted. Mathematics and science educators can utilize such findings
in small but significant ways. And while many elements of individual learning
styles may be obvious to educators, students may not be aware or appreciative
of them. Thus it is important for educators to help individual students
discover, utilize, and appreciate their own unique learning styles.
We all have our own style, whether we are considering how we dress,
how we interact with others, or how we learn. Attending to learning styles
helps teachers adjust instructional strategies to foster increased learning
among individuals, and it helps students take more responsibility for the
conditions of their own learning.
Caine, R., & Caine G. (1991). "Making connections: Teaching and
the human brain." New York: Addison-Wesley.
DeBello, T. C. (1990). Comparison of eleven major learning style models:
Variables, appropriate populations, validity of instrumentation, and the
research behind them. "International Journal of Reading, Writing, and Learning
Disabilities," 6, 203-222.
Dunn, R. & Dunn, K. (1978). "Teaching students through their individual
learning styles: A practical approach." Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
Dunn, R., Dunn, K., & Price, G. E. (1979, 1980, 1990). Productivity
Environ-mental Preference Survey. Obtainable from Price Systems, Box 1818,
Lawrence, KS 66044.
Dunn, R. & Dunn, K. (1993). "Teaching secondary students through
their individual learning styles: Practical approaches for grades 7-12."
Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Griggs, Shirley A. (1991). "Learning styles counseling." Greensboro,
NC: ERIC Counseling and Student Services Clearinghouse.